Community tension in Ireland

07 November 1997

A row-has been sparked between the local community of Cabinteely, a suburb of Dublin, and a group of Travellers who have been camping in a housing estate there, reported the Irish Times on July 31. The trouble began when 38 travelling families settled at the housing estate after failing to gain entrance to a council-owned car park. The Irish Times reported threats and violence by the local non-Traveller community and one travelling family had the windscreen of their van cracked by a resident of Cabinteely brandishing a golf club. Such occurrences are not new and tension between Travellers and the 'settled community' is long-standing.

The Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council claims that of the 38 families only 10 have legal residence in the area, the others being legally resident else where. The Council also claims to have applied for planning permission for a halting site for forty caravans in the area. Southside Travellers Action Group, the local NGO, however, claimed that the Council's draft plan provided for two halting Bites in each electoral ward and that thus far none had been provided. In any case, plans for a halting site or Bites met with staunch opposition from local non-Travellers and the plan was ultimately rejected.

The rights of Travellers to halting sites and housing has been addressed by Section 13 of the 1988 Housing Act which refers to those pursuing a "nomadic way of life." The law puts the onus on the individual housing authorities to "provide, improve, manage or control Bites for caravans used by per sons to whom this section applies." In the McCarthy case of 1991, Mr Justice Barron interpreted Section 13 to mean not only that local authorities have the power to provide halting sites, but that under it they were obliged to do so. In 1995, however, Mr Barron partially reversed the decision by stating that this duty was not absolute and depended on the housing situation in the area.

Throughout the country, facilities for Travellers are at best poor, with few serviced halting Bites and a large number of Traveller families living on the roadside. Earlier this year, the former Irish Minister for Housing, Ms Liz McManus, announced a five-year strategy for dealing with the problem. The plan proposed the pro vision of 3000 housing units for travellers at a cost of ÂŁ158 million. The recommendation for the proposed accommodation was made in a 1995 report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community. The plan provides for a combination of halting sites, transient halting Bites and houses. Local authorities are to prepare five-year plans for the allocation of the accommodation. New legislation is also in the pipeline to clarify the obligations of local authorities towards the travelling community. Authorities will also be given further powers to deal with travellers camping illegally within a specified distance of existing halting Bites.

As far back as 1980, Chief Justice O'Higgins summed up the essence of the problem when he stated that "nothing is solved merely by moving [Traveller] families from place to place." Unfortunately, this is what is currently happening as the settled community stands firm in its conviction that the Traveller problem may be ignored as long as it does not intrude directly in their communities. One of the Travellers at the centre of the present row referred to a similar case in Loughlins town, County Dublin, where Travellers had been paid to move. There has long been antagonism shown towards the Travelling community in Ireland, emerging from the age-old myths that Travellers are aggressive thieves with no respect for property or law.

(Irish Times)


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